Steven Caldwell: “Sky’s the limit” for Toronto FC’s sensational rebuild

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Barking out orders to a bunch of local youth players on a cold, wet and misty morning in the Glasgow suburbs last autumn, it was clear for all to see that Steven Caldwell’s leadership skills are second to none.

After spending his career as a central defensive stalwart with various Premier League teams in England, Caldwell oozes experience and composed confidence. His career has seen him represent Scotland, play in the UEFA Champions League and spend several seasons in England’s top-flight.

WATCH: Seattle vs. Toronto FC, 4:30 p.m. ET live on NBCSN and online

But now arguably his biggest challenge awaits, as the veteran Scottish defender captains Toronto FC. Caldwell, 33, arrived in Major League Soccer midway through the 2013 season and signed a permanent deal to stick around in what could be a breakout season.

Following a major cash injection from TFC’s owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) over the offseason, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley arrived to much fanfare as Toronto’s much-anticipated 2014 season kicks off away to the Seattle Sounders on Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN, 4:30pm ET and online via Live Extra) with the rest of the league casting a watchful eye on Ryan Nelsen’s revolution on the banks of Lake Ontario.

Expectation levels at TFC are high after several below-par seasons and not a single playoff appearance in their seven-year MLS history.

“We’ve got a great front office, great coaching staff, great players and a fantastic city. We’ve got everything here to be a major force in world football,” Caldwell said. “MLS is growing at such a rapid rate, one or two teams are going to rise from MLS and become a global brand. That’s what we want to be. As players we have to start making playoffs and winning MLS Cup’s, once that happens I believe this club can be huge.”

Going back to that opening image of Caldwell coaching in his native land, I was fortunate enough to work alongside him in a professional capacity back in November 2012 as we both completed our UEFA B coaching license in Scotland. A calm coach who knew when to step in and when to let sessions flow, Caldwell’s aura off the pitch was indicative of a leader who lets his boots and actions do the talking.

source: AP
Clint Dempsey and Seattle are Toronto’s opponents, as TFC’s much-anticipated season starts with a bang live on NBCSN this Saturday.

“We are expecting big things, but we know it’s not going to be easy,” Caldwell said of TFC’s hopes for 2014. “There are a lot of very good, established teams in this league. We’ve got a lot of new guys trying to gel, it’s going to take a little bit of time. But with the quality that we have we’re hoping for at least the playoffs and then to try and push for MLS Cup. That’s the aim.”

MLS Season Preview: Toronto FC

That task of launching a monumental turnaround in Toronto — the franchise has failed to win more than 10 MLS games in a single season since they arrived in 2007, plus have a record of 17-51-34 over the last three campaigns — is not an easy one, and Caldwell accepts that.

TFC have suddenly vaulted from a team used to propping up the standings to a favorite for the Eastern conference and MLS Cup. Without even kicking a ball in 2014. Dealing with those expectations and fostering a winning mentality at TFC, where struggles have been commonplace for most, if not all, of the teams existence, is easier said than done.

“We have got to accept that responsibility and take that pressure on,” Caldwell said. “It will come with the players we’ve signed, but we need to embrace that and enjoy the challenge of having to win every week. That’s a little bit new to Toronto Football Club. Hopefully we can rise to that challenge and be the team everybody wants to beat.”

As for Toronto’s season opener, it could hardly be tougher. A trip to CenturyLink Field is something most teams and players dread, as Seattle’s talented squad, in front of their sizable, loud home crowd, makes for a tough environment. But Caldwell is the type of character who thrives in a cauldron of animosity. And the 6-foot-3 Scotsman revealed his side are ‘champing at the bit’ to get their season underway, after being forced to watch on during opening weekend as TFC had a bye-week.

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A leader on and off the field, Caldwell has slotted in superbly at the heart of TFC’s defense.

“It is a huge game, they’re expecting a massive crowd, so it will be a very exciting game to play in,” Caldwell said. “Seattle have got some top players, they’ve brought Clint Dempsey back to MLS and are going to be a challenge. We understand it’s going to be a tough, tough game. But we are of the caliber now that we feel like we can go anywhere and achieve results. We have to be hard to beat, first and foremost, but our quality means we’re capable of winning most, if not every, game.”

That new-found star quality Caldwell speaks of comes mostly from the acquisition of Bradley, the U.S. international midfielder. Arriving from Italian giants AS Roma for $10 million in January, and reportedly paid $5.8 million a year in wages, Bradley is the focal point of TFC’s revolution. On Saturday fans across the USA and Canada will be tuning in to watch Bradley go head-to-head with USMNT colleague Dempsey, as two of MLS’ poster boys square off.

In terms of settling back into MLS with Toronto, it’s a case of so far, so good, for the “General,” according to Caldwell.

“I’ve been very, very impressed. He’s a very mature young man and a fantastic player,” Caldwell said. “Michael is a real winner, which is very exciting for us. He’s going to be a major player for this football club for many years to come. It’s a big coup for us to have such a quality player coming from a huge team like AS Roma. That fact that he chose to play for us, when he probably could’ve joined some of Europe’s best teams, is a major coup.”

Many thought with the money TFC splashed to bring Bradley to BMO Field, plus his experience in Europe and with the U.S., that he’d be taking the captain’s armband on arrival.

source: AP
Michael Bradley, right, and Jermain Defoe are two of the most expensive players in MLS history. They’ll team up to help Toronto win it all in 2014 and beyond.

But it shows the huge admiration and faith head coach Nelsen has in Caldwell. The big Scot revealed that respect is reciprocal, as he heaped praise on Nelsen’s coaching techniques and is desperate to repay the faith shown in him by his manager.

Captaining teams is not new to Caldwell. He’s been the skipper of Burnley, Birmingham City and now Toronto, which is a role Caldwell is relishing as he leads TFC into a brave new era.

But what about the future? Can Toronto really overtake the perennial MLS powerhouses?

Caldwell has been with Toronto since the start of the sides huge rebuild, and despite hiccups along the way, the progress everyone was hoping for is finally clicking into place ahead of the 2014 season.

“When I came to Toronto at the end of last May, I still felt like we were progressing a little bit. Not as quickly as we would’ve liked, but this process is a building period,” Caldwell said. “We’ve now got a structure, a nucleus and a way we want to play. The guys who’ve been kept on this season know their jobs and roles. We’ve got the base to be a very successful team, with the likes of Defoe, Bradley and Gilberto adding to that. We need to learn how to win consistently now. Once we do that, the sky is the limit for this football club.”

James stars for Bayern Munich in Bundesliga win at Schalke (video)

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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BERLIN (AP) James Rodriguez starred on his first Bundesliga start for Bayern Munich, scoring one goal and playing a role in the others for a 3-0 win at Schalke on Tuesday.’

James, who switched from Real Madrid in the offseason, earned a penalty and then scored in the first half, before brilliantly setting up Arturo Vidal to wrap up the win in the second.

[ WATCH: Alex Morgan smashes USWNT goal ]

While the Colombian midfielder made his first league start for Bayern, American teenager Weston McKennie did likewise for the home team. Despite the efforts of the 19-year-old Texan midfielder – who covered more ground than any other player in the first half – Schalke had no answer to James’ individual brilliance.

“We created the goals very well, so we deserved to win,” said Bayern’s reserve goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, playing in place of Germany No. 1 Manuel Neuer. Neuer has been ruled out until January with another hairline fracture of the metatarsal in his left foot.

The home side was first to have the ball in the net, but Amine Harit’s goal was ruled out as Bastian Oczipka was offside. Ulreich had done well with two saves beforehand.

Bayern got the penalty after referee Marco Fritz consulted his video assistant to see if Naldo had handled the ball when James cut it back. The Brazilian defender was going to ground but had his arms raised when the ball struck.

Protests by Schalke players had no effect and Robert Lewandowski duly converted from the spot.

[ MORE: NASL suing U.S. Soccer ]

It got worse for the home side four minutes later, when Bayern scored after a Schalke throw-in. Thomas Mueller, Lewandowski and Corentin Tolisso worked the ball to the unmarked James, who wrong-footed Ralf Faehrmann to score his first Bundesliga goal.

Mueller hit the post with a header from a cross by James after the break, before substitute Yevhen Konoplyanka went close at the other end.

Schalke coach Domenico Tedesco brought on Swiss forward Breel Embolo for McKennie with just over half an hour remaining.

Any hopes of an equalizer ended when James eluded two defenders and delivered a perfect ball for Vidal to strike with a volley to the top corner.

“Altogether there’s no denying that Bayern had a very good day. Then it’s hard for any team,” Schalke general manager Christian Heidel said.

WOLFSBURG FRUSTRATION, AUGSBURG ELATION

Fin Bartels’ second-half header earned Werder Bremen a 1-1 draw at Wolfsburg and denied Martin Schmidt a winning start as coach. Schmidt was appointed Monday when Wolfsburg fired Andries Jonker after the team had claimed just four points in its opening four games.

Michael Gregoritsch’s fourth-minute strike was enough for Augsburg to beat visiting Leipzig 1-0 for its third win from five games.

Two goals from Brazilian midfielder Raffael gave Borussia Moenchengladbach a 2-0 win at home over promoted Stuttgart.

USWNT rides brace from super sub Morgan to big win (video)

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
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Alex Morgan scored two goals, the second with gusto, as the United States women’s national team hammered New Zealand 5-0 at Nippert Stadium in a Tuesday night friendly.

After Cincinnati native Rose Lavelle made a 30-minute cameo in her return from injury, the USWNT poured forth with goals.

[ MORE: NASL suing U.S. Soccer ]

Coming off the bench, Morgan scored within a minute of her second half introduction.

And then, after an electric dribble from Mallory Pugh, Morgan rang an aesthetically-pleasing rocket off the proverbial woodwork to make it 5-0.

Klopp’s reliance on top CB pair nothing new, but a problem

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When Jurgen Klopp was hired at Borussia Dortmund in 2008, he did something right away that would set the stage for BVB’s run back into Bundesliga power.

Klopp brought defender Neven Subotic with him from Mainz, and took Mats Hummels on loan from Bayern Munich.

The 19-year-old Subotic played 38 times for BVB that season, and Hummels played well on way to a permanent transfer.

[ MORE: Klopp left fuming at defending ]

Largely, Klopp seemed to “set it and forget it” with his center backs from that point forward: No big summer buys, and neither Subotic nor Hummels was headed anywhere.

That didn’t change until 2013-14, when Klopp bought Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Werder Bremen, adding Matthias Ginter the next season.

Klopp left BVB after a disappointing 2014-15, taking the job at Liverpool in October 2015.

He didn’t do much in January, but agreed to terms with Schalke center back Joel Matip in February and landed Ragnar Klavan from Augsburg in the summer. The Reds already had bought Dejan Lovren from Southampton in the Summer of 2014, and Klopp seemed set.

[ MORE: League Cup Weds. wrap ]

Lovren improved a lot with Matip next to him, and Klavan made just 15 appearances for the Reds last season. The Reds went hard at Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk, but failed to get him for any number of reasons. Still, Klopp figured his quartet, including young Joe Gomez in a pinch, would be just fine this season.

And maybe they will be, but there are daunting signs for the Reds in the first couple months of the season. Klopp has used Matip in eight matches, tied for the most on the team with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. He’s used Lovren six times, and Klavan four.

Liverpool’s record by CB pair (admittedly a tiny sample size):

Matip-Lovren: 3W-2D
Matip-Klavan: 1W-1D-1L
Gomez-Klavan: 1L (today)

The center backs, sans Matip and Lovren, especially hurt the Reds in the 2-0 loss to Leicester on Tuesday. All three moments of Leicester threat in this highlight package find either Klavan or Gomez cooked or out-of-place.

Look, a lot of teams are going to be hurt when using their second-choice CB pair, and many won’t be bothered by Liverpool’s exit from the League Cup. Furthermore, it’s not like anyone has been mistaking Lovren and Matip for Puyol and Pique.

But look at every English team in Europe, including the ones with far fewer defensive frailties heading into this summer than Liverpool.

Chelsea bought Antonio Rudiger.

Everton added Michael Keane.

Manchester United bought Victor Lindelof.

Spurs bought Davinson Sánchez and Juan Foyth.

Arsenal didn’t buy anyone besides Alexandre Lacazette, while Man City bought full backs and has received plenty of criticism for failing to add to its center back corps of Vincent Kompany, John Stones, and Eliaquim Mangala.

Liverpool? They sold Mamadou Sakho.

It’s problematic, yes, and it can’t be fixed until January. The question is whether Klopp sees a need to spend in the winter window. As illustrated above, he loves to ride his horses, even if Lovren and Matip aren’t quite Hummels and Subotic.

Think of what’s ailed Liverpool in recent seasons: Are some of those flops against lesser Premier League teams changed with more rest for their top pair or a better option for the mix?

League Cup Weds. preview: Top teams mind the underdogs

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The giant killers aim their arrows at Premier League foes on Wednesday in the final five matches of the League Cup’s third round.

[ MORE: League Cup Tues. wrap ]


Arsenal vs. Doncaster Rovers

March 29, 1902 — Doncaster beat Arsenal 1-0. In the century-plus since, Arsenal has won five and drawn once with Doncaster.

Pretty safe to say the in-form Gunners’ and their back-ups will run through the Rovers, though as the old cliche goes, “That’s why they play the games.”

Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest

For a long time, this was a Premier League fixture each season. Now Chelsea welcomes the Championship’s Forest for the third time since 1999.

Everton vs. Sunderland

The Toffees could badly use a nice win after its Europa League beatdown in Italy and a series of tough results against Premier League giants.

Enter Bryan Oviedo, Darron Gibson, Aiden McGeady, Jack Rodwell, and James Vaughn in a Sunderland squad with plenty of experience playing at Goodison Park (The Black Cats have two further players, Tyias Browning and Brendan Galloway, on loan from Everton). USMNT youngster Lynden Gooch could get a starting run versus PL opposition.

Manchester United vs. Burton Albion

The visitors surprised United by forcing an FA Cup replay in 2006, and the Red Devils repaid them with a 5-0 lashing. Burton was in the Conference then, and have risen dramatically in the last few seasons and surprised by surviving a Championship campaign in 2016-17. This one won’t be close, but it’ll be better than 5-0 for Nigel Clough’s Brewers.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Manchester City

Tony Pulis has been able to stymy a lot of teams, but Man City isn’t one of them. West Brom boasts 11-straight wins over the Baggies, the last of which have been by multiple goals. West Brom’s last draw vs. City was Boxing Day 2011. Its last win? Sept. 22, 2010 in the League Cup. Can the Hawthorns be the venue for a surprise?